Unpacking the Black Box International Conference

All BIGSAS Junior Fellow regularly receive emails with calls for academic conferences. While these calls are always read with great interest, conferences are still often perceived as black boxes. Even though the topic of the conference might fit the dissertation, uncertainties and questions arise: Are my findings good enough to be presented? How could I possibly boil down the content of my PhD to a 20-min presentation? Is the right time to present at a conference?

On 12th January 2022 all BIGSAS Junior Fellows received a Call for Papers for the Graduate Student Panel of the African Epistemologies for the 21st Century Conference, hosted by the Council on African Studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. On Saturday, March 5th we, Catheline Nyabwengi and Monika Rohmer, presented during the Graduate Student Panel. Here, we want to share our personal experiences to encourage other Junior Fellows to share their research. 

Decision to Apply

Monika: At first, the title of the conference, African Epistemologies for the 21st Century Conference, did not catch my attention. I did not see my research fitting under the topic of epistemologies. However, after going through the sub-topics of the call, I changed my mind. Even though I felt unable to contribute to the idea of African Epistemologies, I was quite excited about the prospect to talk on “African eco-philosophy and its contribution to climate change and environmental conservation solutions”. In my thesis I explore the interrelationship between language and ecology. I am interested in the differences of conceptualisations of environment in relation to the language one speaks. As in all PhD projects, I have to limit myself to a very specific topic, namely to conceptualisations of water in Senegal. Nonetheless, I felt that an audience interested in (African) eco-philosophies could benefit from my first findings in the realm of the PhD.

Catheline: When I received the email on African Epistemologies for the 21st Century Conference, I did not find the title related to my study focus.  As a result, I did not find any reason why I should apply for it. However, I decided to read through the subtopics of the day to see precisely what these epistemologies refer to. One subtopic, “conflict Resolution,” caught my attention. How does conflict resolution relate to African epistemologies? I thought to myself.  This prompted me to look into the whole background of the conference and I decided to apply for it. After all, science is also about learning from others and expanding our knowledge base, right? While my doctoral thesis focuses on women, violence, and terrorism in Kenya, conflict resolution is among my research interests in East Africa.  After all, violence and conflict are significantly related. One major conflict that has been at the centre of my mind is the Kenya- Somalia maritime conflict. I therefore decided to present my ideas on the plight of African conflict-based studies and recommendations for conflict resolution in this maritime conflict during this conference. 

Application Process

Catheline:  Two days later, I wrote a short abstract (187 words) and in it shared my main ideas. Unlike other abstracts, I did not feel confident sharing this particular one with anybody. I was not convinced by the ideas. I thought it was good to hand it in and get feedback from the institution and the conveners.  After all, there is always a first time for everybody, and this was my first experience with this institution. I just wanted the conveners to read my proposal and evaluate me based on those ideas without any distortion or input from a second party. However, many questions ran through my mind; if given a chance, what would I convey to my audience, and how would I present my idea? Will I meet the expectations of the conveners and the guests? I was excited.  Could not even be sure that my abstract for the conference would be accepted? I stopped overthinking and went on with my normal life, writing my Ph.D. Thesis. A few days later, I received an email from the conveners. The email was neither a rejection nor an acceptance. The conveners asked me to write a more extended version of my abstract and resubmit it. At first, I was hesitant to rewrite it, but a follow-up email encouraged me to resubmit it. And when the next email came, I was shocked! My idea had been accepted for presentation at the conference. Yes!  Full of joy, preparation began.

Monika: Since I had been in the process of applying for two colloquia shortly before, I was able to formulate an abstract rather quickly. I drafted a text combining my current reflections with a general introduction into my field of research, ecolinguistics. After obtaining feedback from my supervisor on the abstract, I submitted my proposition via email on January 13th. To be honest, I read through text and email at least five times to ensure that there were no spelling or punctuation mistakes. Approaching such a renowned institution and its scholars with my modest proposition made me feel like an imposture. Questions appeared at the back of my head: Am I really ready to share my findings? Is my English good enough to contribute to an academic debate?

Receiving a positive answer just a day later, came as a pleasant surprise.

Preparation for Presentation

Monika: A month after my application, on 16th February 2022, I learned about the details of my presentation. I was to present virtually on Saturday, March 5, 2022 at 12:00 am EST. I would share the floor with my colleague Eliab Ikyiriza from the Uganda Christian University. And I was asked to respect the time limit of 20 minutes.

In preparing my talk, a workshop offered by BIGSAS on the topic of conference talks was extremely helpful. During the workshop I received feedback concerning the design of my slides, my speaking voice, and the content most interesting for my colleagues. That enabled me to confidently prepare for the conference during the first days of March.

Catheline: First, this was a virtual conference, and therefore, as usual, I thought of a PowerPoint presentation.  However, the preparation and the use were two different things for reasons I will tell explain later. Secondly, I was scheduled as the last speaker for the second day of the conference, which was apparently on the conference’s second day, apparently, the last time slot.  “Catheline, this is your time to pitch your idea and presenting yourself to the audience.”  Ahaaa, … I kept telling myself.  You know many times towards the end of the conference people are tired, others are leaving, and others sleepy.  How will I retain my audience until the last minute? I kept wondering. The more I thought about this presentation, the more excited I grew. In preparation for this conference, knowledge of the historical conflict between Kenya and Somalia and the background of disputes in the Horn of Africa was of significant help. I explored the conflict through the lens of proposed study recommendations on conflicts by African scholars in Africa. Again, following the conference on the first day helped me situate my ideas within the exact theme of African Epistemologies of the 21st Century.

Experience during the Conference

Catheline: The conference was to last for two days. On the first day, I attended all the sessions. Of course, the time difference was a challenge -a whole six hours!  The sacrifice was worth it; I had a chance to learn from other scholars, familiarise myself with the conference flow, and understand African epistemologies in the conference context.  That night I decided, “you don’t need PowerPoint Catheline. Your audience will need a diverse mode of content delivery,” And just like that, I chose to do away with my PowerPoint. All I needed was me, the idea I wanted to put across, and my audience … one more thing, a map of the contested territory between Kenya and Somalia.  On the day of the presentation, I knew I had 20 minutes. To my surprise, I ended up using 12 minutes and ended the presentation by throwing a question to the audience and challenging each to think keenly through it without expecting an answer from me. I know you are wondering why I did this, right?  Worry no more; I got you.  The answer is simple, bridging the gap between African knowledge and African conflicts resolution needs all of us. What worried me most was the kind of questions I would receive from the audience’s pool of scholars, professors, and researchers. To my surprise, only the moderator asked me a question, the same question I had asked my audience. This I did not expect, but I had to give my opinion on the same.

Monika: I tried to attend as many lectures I could of the first day of the African Epistemologies of the 21st Century Conference, even though the time difference of six hours was a challenge. By attending other sessions, not only did I learn more about current debates on African Epistemologies, I was further able to familiarize myself with the virtual set-up of the conference. For instance, direct interaction was only possible with speakers, the majority of the audience could only contribute via writing their questions and was not visible on my computer screen.

To my surprise, I ended up presenting 30 minutes earlier than planned, due to connection issues of another speaker. During the talk, it felt strange facing my own slides and not seeing any reactions from the audience. While I had practiced the presentation itself in detail and felt confident with it, the most difficult part was to answer questions of the audience, which differed from my expectations.

Closing Remarks

Monika: Taking up the challenge of presenting at my first international conference was a very rewarding. For me, it made sense to unpack the black box international conference at an early stage of my dissertation. This helped me to grow academically and personally. Sharing my research motivated me to pursue my questions further.

Catheline: While this was not my first international conference to present my ideas, it was the first conference where I took up the challenge to share my thoughts in a field that is not purely my focus–African epistemologies. The conference opened my thinking and ideas about decoloniality and the power of language and Afro research in this process. The feedback I received from the audience, including my fellow JF Monika, gave me the courage for more and more conferences in the future.  I was also able to add some new individuals to my network box. Currently, I am preparing an article for publication from the ideas I had shared at the conference.  I will share one major thing with all JF: “Always give it a trial; there is always a first time for everybody.”

For more information and to get a better impression of the conference – visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-xtQMe0tp8&list=PL3LHXkVop1tbOAMna2yfAaeDyr18H8ig0

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